There is something magical about every new beginning …

June 19, 2020

What will our everyday working lives look like after the coronavirus pandemic? The first indications are that the switch to working from home has been well managed, both in terms of work processes and employee satisfaction. Now we need careful planning to make sure that the reopening or repurposing of commercial real estate is just as successful. Digital solutions could well be the key to creating a new office status quo – even if the real estate industry is likely to feel the impact of weakening demand for office space.

Front view of an office building with a row of dark wooden tables under large windows. Solid ceiling lights.

Back to our desks?!?

After months of teleworking, many employees are now starting to return to their offices and get back behind their desks. But will everything be the same as it was before March 2020?

Facebook and Google have already announced that a majority of their employees will continue to work from home until the end of the year. And another major tech company, Twitter, has said that it would be allowing its employees to decide for themselves whether they want to work at home or in the office. In a survey conducted by the Technical University of Cologne in the first half of April, 74% of the 903 home office employees surveyed said they were “satisfied” or even “very satisfied” with their current situation, 21% were “neither satisfied nor dissatisfied” and only 5% were “dissatisfied.” For 36% of those surveyed, this was the first time in their professional lives that they had been able to work from home!

But what about employers? Well, the abrupt switch of up to 100% of some workforces to remote working has also gone better than expected. For example, despite the fact that around 90% of Credit Suisse employees have been working from home, the bank has not reported any serious problems with its IT systems or day-to-day business. Customer services and operations have been entirely unaffected, even as markets have become increasingly volatile and trading volumes surged. For many, actually returning to the office is a less attractive proposition than you might have expected.

Adapt, Evolve, Improve

Confronted with the challenges of dealing with an airborne virus, the previously popular concepts of open-plan offices and hot-desking (“smart work”) have proved to be less than ideal, as demonstrated by the spread of the virus in a South Korean open-plan office with 100 workstations.

As a result of the unique challenges arising from the Covid-19 pandemic, getting employees back to the office safely requires intensive planning and the consistent implementation of hygiene and physical distancing regulations. Savills has divided the reopening and/or repurposing process for commercial real estate into three distinct phases: Adapt, Evolve, Improve. “Returning to the office is more than just a step back to normality, it is also a step towards to a new paradigm for working environments everywhere. After all, responding to enforced change requires agility, flexibility and creativity, as well as accelerating existing transformation processes. Above all, users and owners demand adaptability,” says Panajotis Aspiotis, Managing Director and regional director of the Office Agency at Savills Germany.

Digital solution for the new office paradigm

Each workplace will require different measures, depending on the size and culture of the company, the respective workflows and processes and the allocation and availability of space. Implementation starts with circulation plans for foyers, elevators, escalators and staircases (preferably only allowing travel in one direction, analog to a system of one-way streets) and extends to digital solutions which, using QR codes for example, can enable users to log in and out of offices and rooms, thereby creating easily traceable contact chains in case of infection. Planners also need to establish which rooms and surfaces are most intensively used in order to make sure they are disinfected accordingly. “At Apleona, our digital solution is already fully developed, tested and in use at our head office. The system is relatively cost-effective and can be affordably implemented, which makes our software an ideal component of the process to design and implement corona-proof office environments and a building block for the new office paradigm of our customers,” is how Apleona CEO Dr. Jochen Keysberg assesses the potential of his company’s new digital solution.

Weaker demand for office space

Despite the potential for innovative solutions, it seems likely that coronavirus will trigger a significant reduction in demand for office space. If around 25% of employees continue to work from home in the long term, this will not only have a negative impact on demand, it will also put downward pressure on office rents. Dr. Günter Vornholz from the EBZ Business School in Bochum expects the office market to respond with more flexible office concepts, although he concedes that a slackening of demand for office space would affect investment markets and trigger price declines in the medium term.

The situation remains fluid – so stay tuned!

Stephanie von Keudell

Independent journalist